What is it about this amazing phenomenon of hundreds of thousands of people streaming every Lag B'Omer to the gravesite of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai?
To understand it, we must first know that it's not just Lag B'Omer. All year long the site is a very popular one for visiting and praying. Some days are more crowded than others, such as on the 7th of Adar (the birthday and yahrtzeit of Moshe Rabbeinu), Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, other holidays, and even Sabbaths in general. But of course Lag B'Omer, anniversary of the death of Rabi Shimon (often known as Rashbi), is the pinnacle, with the arrival of well over a half-million visitors.
How is this singular event to be understood? It can be properly grasped only if we realize that the surging of the masses to the physical gravesite is simply part of the general rush to and pursuit of the teachings of Rabi Shimon – the Zohar and "Torat HaSod," the Kabbalah. This, too, is becoming continually more intense. Not long ago, the study of Kabbalah was a "trendy" thing to do, or possibly the stuff of some sincere amateurs who did not understand much of what they were reading. But today, it is becoming more serious and more profound, and it is gaining momentum in Israel and around the world – among Jews of all stripes, and among non-Jews as well.
And so, whether we agree with them or not, we see that people are running towards Kabbalah. This spurt of fascination and interest in the Zohar should actually come as no surprise – for it was predicted long ago. The Prophet Elijah, studying with R. Shimon and his colleagues, told them that the Torah they were learning together was written not for them, but for the generation of the Final Redemption. This is why it was actually hidden from the world during the days of R. Shimon, until some 1,400 years later. But it was finally revealed to the Ari z"l – Rav Yitzchak Luria of Tzfat – because he was one of the first to ascend to the Holy Land and disseminate Torah there.
The Zohar in Parshat B'ha'alot'kha compares the story of Rashbi in the cave [he remained there with his son for 13 years, hiding from the Roman rulers] to Noah in the ark during the Great Flood. We know that G-d commanded Noah to build an ark and take with him two or seven of each type of animal. He was told to feed and sustain them for more than a year, in order so that life could once again flourish after the destruction. Noah also preserved all sorts of grains and seeds in the ark, so that plant life could similarly sprout up again.
Just as Noah acted in the ark to renew life after the Flood, so too Rashbi acted in the cave to renew Jewish life after the destruction of the Holy Temple and the Land, and the scattering of the Jewish People throughout the world. The Jewish People at that time was on the cusp of total annihilation. The Torah itself warned of these grave repercussions: "You will be lost among the nations and the land of your enemies will consume you" (Vayikra 26,38). Spiritually, too, they were in mortal danger, as we read in Psalms (106,25): "They will mix with the Gentiles and learn from their deeds." And even more: Prophecy was lost to Israel, the Divine Presence no longer dwelt among them – and the world of Torah was in ruins. As stated in Lamentations: "Their king and ministers were scattered among the nations – there was no Torah." Not only was the Torah in general in grave danger, but also the holy esoteric teachings of Rashbi looked to be lost. As Rabbi Chaim Vital, top disciple of the Ari z"l, writes: "This brilliant wisdom was revealed openly – until the death of Rashbi, from which time the vision was blocked off."
Rashbi knew that the Exile would not last forever, because G-d had forged a covenant with the Patriarchs and promised that He would restore their descendants to their rightful place: "G-d will restore your remnants and have mercy on you" (Deut. 30,3). There is also the well-known promise to our Matriarch Rachel: "[Your] children will return to their borders" (Jer. 31,16). Therefore, it was clear that we had to retain all the spiritual life-forces of the Nation of Israel for the period after the "flood," and renew the new world during the period of the Redemption.
With Rashbi's hard work, similar to that of Noah, to preserve all the seeds of life for the post-destruction era, he prepared and enabled the People of Israel, when the time would come, to restore its special life forces. He wished to restore to them the light of Torah, the honor of Torah and its scholars, the ability to prophesize, and the dwelling of the Divine Presence in their midst.
Rashbi sat in the cave to write the Zohar, just as G-d instructed Noah to build a window into the ark. The Zohar is a window through which Israel will enter, in the generation of Geula, to take back its life treasures.
People are flocking towards Rashbi and his teachings just like the animals ran instinctively towards the Noah's ark. No one called them or pulled them; they came as animals all over the world seek out water sources, sources of life. Similarly, people are running towards the treasures that Rashbi hid for us.
And so, this phenomenon of the rising popularity of the Kabbalah is just another sign of our nearing Redemption. It's a different kind of sign. We're used to seeing signs such as the Aliyah of Jews, the blossoming and productivity of the Land, and Jewish rule over Eretz Yisrael. We see redemption in the tremendous teshuva process that has been with us for over four decades, ever since the liberation and reunification of Jerusalem – and we see it in the return of the Nation of Israel to its previous strengths and might.
But we must also see redemption in the fact that people no longer suffice with learning practical Jewish Law alone; they are now seeking the very Tree of Life. They want contact, they want inner comprehension, and they want the Shechina in their midst. They want G-d.
We all await the day that these hopes, prayers, and aspirations will be directed towards the Beit HaMikdash in Yerushalayim. Meanwhile, however, they are directed towards the righteous in our midst, as the Zohar teaches us (Zohar II, 38). The day will come when all the strength, unity, song, and happiness of the great masses in Meron will be transplanted to Jerusalem, where we will be granted the privilege of ascending to - and seeing the goodness of - Jerusalem, on the Mount of G-d's Abode – Amen!
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